The days have grown shorter, the chilly weather has settled in and the skies have turned a steely grey: it’s the end of October and Halloween is just around the corner. It’s a time when we choose to suspend disbelief, to indulge in strange ideas and the impossible made – briefly – possible. And where better to bring nightmare visions to life than art?
This Halloween, let’s dive into the darker side of our public art collections in search of the gory, the creepy, the visions of witches, monsters and the devil: enduring images that have fired the imaginations of artists through the centuries.
Judith’s cool stare back at the viewer is Tarantino-esque, giving Kill Bill's Bride a run for her money.
Judith, a beautiful widow, enters the tent of Holofernes, an Assyrian general intending to invade her
There are numerous works showing us the moment Judith slays her victim. In some, Holofernes is afforded a little modesty, with a cloth draped around his (soon to be severed) neck. Other artists have been less reticent and give us a more gory spray of blood; in Johann Liss’ painting of the fateful moment, we get a top-down view of the exposed neck. Judith’s cool stare back at the viewer is Tarantino-esque, giving Kill Bill's Bride a run for her money.
Most of the paintings have a similar physicality; it looks like Judith is having to work hard to decapitate Holofernes. Yet
Every Halloween, we like to surround ourselves with certain images: ghosts, ghouls, monsters, devils
Myths and legends,
And while we're on Greek mythology: if you go down to Kingston Lacy, you may be greeted by this particularly fearsome depiction of the monstrous Medusa, who was also fought (and killed) by Perseus.
Moving on to Biblical tales, the story of the temptation of Saint Anthony has given artists license to conjure up various ghouls. Anthony, a Christian monk, made a pilgrimage to the desert in his native
The painting below, at first glance, looks like a typical narrative scene: and then the monsters in the bottom right hand corner catch your eye...
As far as skeletons go, there are a fair few around on Art UK, particularly from the Wellcome Collection. This collection is fantastic for Halloween exploration, as a repository of the weird and wonderful: there are paintings a-plenty of people having teeth pulled out in primitive ways, surgeons ‘letting blood’ and monkeys performing alchemy.
However, the UK's efforts at skeleton art are eclipsed by the Japanese artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi, whose triptych presents the moment a ‘skeleton spectre’ arrives, summoned by the princess Takiyasha to defeat her father's enemies.
The Wellcome Collection also holds two paintings by followers of Hieronymus Bosch, the Dutch painter whose works have been widely copied. Bosch created visions of hell that are so detailed they take on the feel of a real place, rather than just an ephemeral concept. You can only imagine how terrifying they would have been to look at back in the fifteenth century.
William Blake’s Ghost of a Flea is a classic piece of creepy art. At first glance, the title seems at odds with the painting – then you realise that this weird, golden monster is literally meant to be the ghost of a flea.
There is really no greater description of this than the display caption at Tate Britain, where the painting lives:
‘John Varley – an artist, astrologer and close friend of Blake – reported... that Blake once had a spiritual vision of a ghost of a flea and that "This spirit visited his imagination in such a figure as he never anticipated in an insect." While drawing the spirit it told the artist that all fleas were inhabited by the souls of men who were "by nature bloodthirsty to excess". In the painting it holds a cup for blood-drinking and stares eagerly towards it...'
Thankfully, the painting is quite small in real life. Coming across a human-size rendering of it really would be terrifying.
One strand of Surrealist art aimed to reveal and depict images of the subconscious. The thinking went that, during our everyday lives, our waking minds suppress the images the subconscious mind wants us to see. These subconscious images, when brought to
Dorothea Tanning’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik is immediately and powerfully dreamlike. It breaks the rules of the real world, with its weirdly large, misplaced sunflower, and the eerie, serene figures. Perhaps most concerning is that light coming through the slightly-ajar door: what’s behind it?
Tanning herself wrote of her piece: ‘…at night one imagines all sorts of happenings in the shadows of the darkness. A hotel bedroom is both intimate and unfamiliar… and this can conjure a feeling of menace and unknown forces at play. But these unknown forces are a projection of our own imaginations: our own private nightmares.’
The strangest Surrealist art, like a good psychological thriller, shows that it does not need to depict horror explicitly to spook us: the most effective fear comes directly from within ourselves.
Though perhaps the painting below would beg to differ; surely a competitor for the creepiest painting on Art UK. Titled, appropriately, Nightmare, I wouldn't recommend looking at it too close to bedtime.
Molly Tresadern, Art UK Content Creator and Marketer